Last week, Thoraya Obaid delivered her last speech as executive director to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Board of Directors. Ending a ten-year term at the helm of the controversial United Nations (UN) agency, Obaid took the opportunity to highlight some of her “greatest achievements,” including her relentless promotion of the “reproductive rights” agenda.
Obaid said she was “proud of the progress that we have made to secure a solid policy and legal foundation for sexual and reproductive health.” According to Obaid, “Today the concept of reproductive health is widely accepted and reflected in international, regional and national policies and plans.”
While perhaps not as well known as her predecessor Nafis Sadik, Thoraya Obaid’s tenure at UNFPA has arguably made a bigger impact on the UN system, bringing more money and increased global and regional activity. Early in her tenure, Obaid raised eyebrows when she praised China for its “remarkable achievements in population control,” made possible by the country’s one-child policy, although such missteps were rare.
Obaid claimed agency neutrality on the abortion issue, stating that UNFPA only tries to prevent “unsafe abortion.” However, UNFPA staffers under Obaid intervened on the question in at least one instance. Prior to a vote to ban abortion in Nicaragua in 2006, UNFPA ignored broad-based support for the abortion ban and attempted to stop the Nicaraguan Parliament from changing the law. And in 2007, UNFPA was one of the largest donors of the abortion advocacy law firm, the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Obaid pushed hard for “universal access to reproductive health” to be recognized as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), despite its repeated and explicit rejection as a goal by heads of state in both 2000 and 2005. While initial efforts failed, starting in 2007, Obaid was at the forefront of promoting this concept as a new MDG target, which was referenced in an annex of a Secretary-General’s report. At a UNFPA board meeting, several board members countered Obaid’s claim, interjecting that member states had not agreed to a new target and the only thing that could generate one was a resolution of the General Assembly.
Apart from nearly doubling the agency’s funding from $400 million to $700 million, Obaid also increased the scope of UNFPA’s activities, delving into regional activities such as in the African Union (AU) where UNFPA was instrumental in drafting and pressuring countries to adopt the Maputo Protocol and the Maputo Plan of Action, which activists have used to claim for expanded abortion rights.
Obaid’s UNFPA has also begun targeting youth and adolescents, most recently taking a leading role at the World Youth Conference in Mexico where UNFPA-selected and funded youth representatives pushed governments for “sexual rights” including abortion and contraceptives.
Obaid closed her speech with a final plea to UNFPA board members “to keep standing up for this vision of universal reproductive health and rights” and “to take this message forward in the upcoming MDG Summit” which will take place from September 20-22.
UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon will announce the new UNFPA Executive Director later this year.
Link to speech: http://unfpa.org/public/home/news/pid/6551